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Field Notes
Priit J. Vesilind

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

The food is heavenly on most ships, including naval vessels. But the Odyssey Explorer—where I spent three weeks—was staffed by Polish cooks with a limited repertoire, mostly bland meat and potatoes. So it was a deep pleasure to ship out for a week on the ship from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. Yum! Beautiful cheeseburgers the first night. Platefuls of spiced shrimp fresh from the Gulf the next night. Lots of fresh fruit and salad. I gained close to six pounds (three kilograms) in just a week, but it was worth it. The nor'easters that blow in the fall didn't get too nasty either, so I was able to keep my appetite.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

The research team decided to send the manned Johnson Sea Link down to the wreck site, which would give me a firsthand look. Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, would sit in the front bubble of the submersible with the pilot. I was to sit with a radioman in a small pod at the rear and look out of a porthole.

While showing me the controls, the radio operator started to tell me what to do if all the other people in the sub lost consciousness. I would have to bring it up by myself. I was unnerved because I couldn't keep track of the sequence of moves, but also because Clay Link, son of the submersible's inventor and a friend of mine, had died right in the back pod where I was sitting. In 1968, while diving in the Mediterranean, an equipment failure caused the Johnson Sea Link to run out of oxygen. When the submersible came up, both men in the back pod were dead.

It was hard to keep the incident out of my mind as the radioman gave me instructions. As it happened, I never went through with the dive. The seas were too rough, and at the last minute the captain called it off.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I wanted to see what coins from a treasure felt like, so I volunteered to serve as a coin cleaner and conservator with two other staff members. We sat in a little assembly line. The archaeologist took the coin from the bucket of fresh water, I shoved it into a plastic sleeve, and the third guy recorded the coin's details: year, mint, and denomination. We wore rubber gloves to make sure we didn't put our fingerprints on them as the oil would leave an imprint that would decrease the value of the coin. We were handling coins that would fetch anywhere from $1,000 to $450,000 each in the numismatics market, and it was up to us not to make a single mark on them. Every scratch on a mint condition $20 gold piece, said one of the conservators, was a thousand dollars off the price. It was quite a heady feeling, handling millions.